When The Simpsons parodied The Great Gatsby this season, it tapped into one of the novel’s major themes — the uniquely American desire for reinvention. For centuries, people have come to the United States, or sought unspoiled frontiers within it, in the hope that new surroundings would allow them to become new people. Regardless of whether that’s an attainable goal or a false fantasy, the impulse to start anew is buried deep within the American psyche.
But it’s also within an eight-year-old girl struggling to overcome her innate nerdiness and make a few friends. As I discussed on The Simpsons Show Podcast, “Summer of 4 ft. 2,” is one of the series’s best and most resonant episodes because it captures that universal desire to remake ourselves, and yet realizes that in the personal, affecting tones of a lonely kid with the simple want of friendship. Even in a family full of unusual people, Lisa Simpson is a misfit, and that makes her quest for her first real friend(…ship bracelet) an undeniably poignant one.
On the last day of school, Lisa’s triumphant unveiling of the yearbooks she helped design (replete with leatheroleum covers — you can smell the benzene!) has convinced her that this coup de grâce will make her the most popular girl in Springfield Elementary. Unfortunately, when the book (titled “Retrospecticus”) is distributed, Lisa’s finds herself dismissed by Nelson, upstaged by Bart, and holding a yearbook bereft of any signatures from the classmates she expected to be fawning over her.
It’s a clever way to illustrate Lisa’s social standing, or lack thereof. She is understandably downtrodden and confused at this development. Lisa’s always marched to the beat of her own drum, but the realization that her accomplishments — Straight A’s, perfect attendance, bathroom timer — have isolated rather than ingratiated her with her peers, is a harsh and lonely one. While the episode takes her geekiness and outsider status to an extreme for dramatic effect, it’s the sort of sad revelation familiar to anyone who felt left out growing up, and it sets the stage for her transformation.
When the family takes a vacation to a beach town called Little Pwagmattasquarmsettport (known as “America’s Scrod Basket,” unlike Springfield, which is known as “America’s Crud Bucket,” at least according to Newsweek), it gives Lisa the opportunity to, like the humble hermit crab, shed her nerdy shell and put on a new persona for kids who know nothing about her grade-grubbing, apple-polishing past. She buys new clothes, puts on her best “like you know, whatever” affect, and makes her approach.
And it works! Against all odds, the local kids welcome her into their group, and she is rightfully overjoyed. “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” so perfectly captures those child-like attempts at coolness, the fraught but thrilling sense that the put-on is working, and the fear of being exposed at any moment. Lisa’s efforts to be hip are adorable, from her (as Milhouse puts it) Blossom-like appearance to her overly-practiced attempts at teenspeak. It’s an unfamiliar guise for Lisa, one that requires more performance and carefully consideration than natural ease from her. It is, instead, a conscious effort on her part to try to emulate the cool ideal as best she can, and the results from the naturally nerdy young woman feigning a slacker chill are both amusing and endearing.
Better yet are her frantic efforts not to let the routine falter for even a moment, whether it’s blaming her familiarity with libraries on her “dorky little brother Bartholomew” or passing off her scientific knowledge about sea life as something she learned on Baywatch. There’s the sense that for all Lisa’s efforts here, she cannot completely suppress her brainy bearing. No matter how many tie-dye shirts she throws on, the geeky Lisa peeks through, and not only are her frantic attempts to cover for those slip-ups entertaining, but they show her desperation and her fears that the truth of who she is would scare away the new pals she’s so excited to have.
Best of all is the clear giddiness she experiences when this grand scheme to say “bye bye Lisa Simpson” works better than she could ever have imagined. The episode draws a contrast between the dejectedness Lisa feels after the yearbook fiasco and the pure joy she revels in among her beachside buds. These new companions seek her out rather than ostracize her, and for once in her life, Lisa is a part of the gang and over the moon about it.
Bart, however, can’t have that. Part of Lisa’s scheme involves emulating her brother, from spouting his catchphrases, to skateboarding, to casting him as the uncool younger sibling. What gives “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” its narrative momentum is that reversal, where Lisa is on cloud nine and Bart is jealous and angry to be the one who’s excluded for once.
Flipping the Simpson kids’ usual social positions is a canny choice that informs the characters’ personalities and their motivations here. Bart is used to being the popular one, and his frustrations in the beach town where his charms fall on deaf ears is as stark as Lisa’s reciprocal euphoria. It’s that reversal, coupled with Bart’s disgruntled sense that this simply isn’t the natural order of things, which makes “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” more than a standard-issue Pygmalion story.
That same self-righteous, self-serving “principle” makes Bart spill the beans about Lisa’s past (using that same yearbook of course), thereby dashing Lisa’s attempts to remake herself. It’s a cutting, even cruel move from Bart. And the anger and hurt Lisa feels when this tenuous, grand, but seemingly successful plan to be cool is seemingly torn asunder is more than understandable. She finally had her heart’s desire, only for her own brother, who otherwise gets to enjoy such popularity on a daily basis, to rip it away from her. The sting of that is well-earned.
The scenes following that betrayal, where Lisa runs away crying, has her reckoning with Bart, and resigns herself to a life without companionship, are some of the best in the show’s history. The back and forth between the two siblings in the aftermath, from Bart’s smug moralizing to Lisa’s teeth-gritted fury, is perfect, selling both Lisa’s deserved contempt for her brother, and Bart’s slow but steady understanding of the gravity of the wrong he inflicted on her.
The episode also finds the pure pathos in Lisa having this dream denied. When she trudges home from after losing out to Bart once again, she takes it as a crushing sign from the universe that he’s destined to always come out on top. She feels fated to loneliness and loss. There may be no more devastating line in the entire series than “Being myself didn’t work. Being someone else didn’t work. Maybe I just wasn’t meant to have friends.” It captures that tremendous insecurity of youth, the worry that we are damaged goods, never to be understood, appreciated, or welcomed.
She returns to the beach house where The Simpsons are staying and finds her erstwhile pals monkeying around in the dark. Believing that they’re pulling a prank on her, the flat disgust and sarcasm in Lisa’s voice when she tells them to “finish it up and send [her] a Polaroid” shows how resigned she is to this seemingly outcast fate. It’s a testament to the depths of her despair, that Lisa cannot even muster up the energy to be upset or surprised at such developments anymore.
But what cinches “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” as one of the show’s all-time great installments is how it embraces one of the longstanding themes of the series — the need for acceptance. To be a Simpson is to be an oddball, a misfit, something out of step with the rest of the world. Whether it’s Lisa straining to be cool in her new surroundings, Homer wanting to join the Stonecutters, Marge trying to fit in at the local country club, or Bart cutting the head off the Jebediah Springfield statue to impress a pack of bullies, The Simpsons have always yearned to be embraced by their peers and their community. From the show’s first season, when Homer uttered the immortal line, “Now remember, as far as anyone knows, we’re a nice, normal family,” the series has consistently shown its protagonists straining to pass as regular folk and wanting to belong.
For once, the powers that be grant Lisa that small bit of providence. When her darkest secrets are revealed, the response is not the shunning Lisa faced back in Springfield, but rather an earnest embrace. The apparent pranksters milling about the Simpsons car in the dark are, in fact, offering Lisa a gesture of goodwill, affixing bits and pieces of ocean ephemera to let her take the beach with her wherever she goes. It’s a sign of the enduring quality of their friendship, not the end of it.
When Erin tells Lisa, “We don’t care who you were and you can’t fake the kind of good person that you are,” it is the hope underlying Lisa’s attempt at transformation made real; even when the mask falls, when the truth spills out, the people we care about will love us for who we are deep down, regardless of whether we’re wearing a backwards cap or stylish sunglasses. In the face of her worst fears, Lisa instead tastes the fruits of her greatest hopes.
Bart too makes amends. He takes that yearbook, the symbol of Lisa’s friendless existence and the evidence of her “nerdish leanings,” and gets her beach buddies to sign it, making it, instead, a reminder that no matter where she goes or what she does, Lisa has friends (including poor Milhouse, who offers her his best wishes and the salutation that he’ll “see [her] in the car”). It’s a kind, redemptive gesture from Bart, one that changes the little hellion from antagonist to ally, and shows that his preteen jealousy can be superseded by his love and understanding for his sister.
That sort of acceptance and caring are at the core of “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” and what makes it such a powerful episode. The Simpsons is a show about misfits, and in that it has attracted legions of misfit fans. While many die hards like myself have their share of Comic Book Guy tendencies, many of us also feel a certain kinship with Lisa, who represents the brighter side of the lonely nerd spectrum the show presents. For that sort of fan, Lisa’s struggle rings true and her acceptance is all the more encouraging.
The Simpsons as a whole provides such solace. It shines a spotlight on this off-kilter family, presenting a slanted view of the world, that is as comforting as it is hilarious to the similarly off-kilter fans of the show. For kids who felt as Lisa did, it offered a respite from the same sort of sense of isolation and ostracism. As Kurt Vonnegut once put it, it sent the message, “I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
The show’s writers were our “grown-up nerds like Gore Vidal.” And through the series, some of those fans have, like Lisa, even found like-minded chums, on newsgroups, message boards, podcasts, and reviews of twenty-year-old episodes. In short, The Simpsons offered hope, hope that there were other Lisas and Barts and Homers and Marges out there who might see past our geeky predilections and accept us as kindred spirits.
But whether you’re the sort of über-nerd who waxes poetic about Lisa Simpson as an emotional touchstone or just a normal person who enjoys the physical comedy of Homer trying to celebrate the independence of his nation by “blowing up a small part of it,” “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” stands as one of The Simpsons’s greatest achievements. It offers the pull of reinvention, the giddy thrills of a new facade, the goofiness of the writers’ beachside jibes, the pain when the ruse crumbles, and the warm embrace of acceptance. To do all this, while never veering into the maudlin or saccharine, and convey it all through an eight-year-old girl in a thoroughly hilarious fashion is, to put it mildly, a soaring accomplishment. The episode tells the relatable, heartening story of a lonely kid, struggling to be something else, who’s accepted for what she already was.
Odds and Ends
- This is a pretty florid review for an episode where Homer buys a porno mag, a pack of condoms, and a couple of disposable enemas.
- The episode is also a stealthily great outing for Milhouse as a lovable dope. Between his impersonations of a sprinkler, his run-in with a horseshoe crab, and his exaltation of “Oh boy, a carnival!” his presence in the episode is an unending source of great comedy.
- As always, Homer makes for a great comic relief side character. His interactions with Flanders, attempts at doormat-based swim attire, and especially his Wile E. Coyote routine with the fireworks were all a blast.
- The same goes for Marge. She’s a minor part of this episode, but it leans into the sad but funny qualities of her square, staid existence and even her dry wit, and makes the most of it. Her response to Lisa’s sarcasm about making beds, with all her dorky enthusiasm, is pure Marge.
- The animation and direction in the scene where Lisa is being bounced up and down on a beach blanket as Bart approaches is particularly great. The flash of the fireworks as she bobs in and out of the frame, the stop-and-start view of Bart’s approach, and the up-and-down perspective of his nodding while holding the yearbook are all fantastic little sequences.
- There’s also tons of great turns of phrase throughout the episode. From the deliberate incoherence of the town’s kids (“stuff sucks”), to the local clerk’s description of “red-blooded, flag-fearing American[s],” to Homer’s memorable declaration of “Sweet Merciful Crap!” the dialogue is all top notch.
- The best line in the episode, however, is Lisa reassuring herself that “You don’t control the birds. You will someday, but not now.” I hope her quiet plans for aviary domination come to fruition some day.
- One thing is clear, credited writer Dan Greaney does not care for the trite reassurance that you should just “be yourself.” Between Lisa’s quick rejection of Marge’s advice and Bart’s condescending use of the phrase after exposing Lisa as a nerd, the folks behind the show have little love lost for the truism. It fits with the show’s propensity to dig past superficial maxims without outright cynicism.
- Another easily-missed but great gag is Flanders talking about the man who crashed into a decorative rowboat full of geraniums being tried for a maritime offense.
- One of my all-time favorite small animation touches is the slow smile that creeps across Homer’s face when he realizes Bart got “the dud” in the Mystery Date board game. It’s a little touch, but one that creates a delightful character moment.
- Last but certainly not least, “Summer of 4 Ft. 2” is also an extraordinary showcase for Yeardley Smith. The raw anger in her voice when Lisa threatens Bart, the awe when she witnesses her friends’ gesture, and the choked up gratitude when she sees the signed yearbook bring Lisa to emotional places The Simpsons doesn’t normally take the character. But Smith was more than up to the challenge.